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“What’s ‘it’ – What do you mean by ‘it’?”: Lost Readings and getting lost in “Kew Gardens”

Oliver Taylor


La flâneuse urbaine: c'est en ces termes qu'on a souvent parlé de l'écriture de Woolf de “Street Haunting” à “Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street”. Cet article propose de revenir sur ces termes en lisant “Kew Gardens” à la lumière des journaux d'adolescence où Woolf décrit ses explorations nomades de la campagne, hors des sentiers battus. Les critiques de cette nouvelle ont négligé ou minimisé l'importance des révisions que Woolf fit du tapuscrit et d'un commun accord, lisent le jardin en termes d'atmosphère. En présentant une comparaison détaillée du tapuscrit et de la première édition de “Kew Gardens” (1919), cette étude découvre certaines lectures perdues et les met en relation avec les observations que Woolf consigne dans son journal sur le potentiel créatif que constitue le fait de se perdre. En outre, en examinant la façon dont Woolf révise le tapuscrit en 1919 et insiste sur l'exploration physique de l'espace par le toucher, cet article montre l'importance du corps dans toute analyse du langage, de la conscience—à la fois humaine et animale—et de l'atmosphère dans la nouvelle.

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

Virginia Woolf

Texte intégral

1In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf shows how bringing the mind into contact with “facts” relies on the trespassing of spatial and textual boundaries. On the way to the “Oxbridge” library where she intends to look at the amendments to a manuscript, she rapidly pursues her thoughts about women and fiction hither and thither across the turf, only to be intercepted by a Beadle who sends her back to the gravel path. No great harm is done, except to her pleasure – after all, “turf is better walking than gravel” (Woolf 1945: 8) – and to her thoughts, which she realises have been sent back into hiding once she is back on the straight and narrow. Predictably, when she arrives at the library via this path she is not permitted to enter there either. So she proceeds to take these encounters and weave them into an argument that demonstrates the creative potential of going off the beaten track. Indeed, she only breaks off her thoughts on the future of women’s writing “because they stimulate [her] to wander from [her] subject into trackless forests where [she] shall be lost” (78).

2Nevertheless, with this in mind, she considers the novel, a book that, she says, should be adapted to the body to accommodate the interruptions of a modern (woman’s) life and one that leaves an impression on the mind’s eye that is “pagoda shaped” and “domed like the Cathedral of Saint Sofia at Constantinople” (71). The simile is apropos, since her own first-hand impressions of St. Sophia, show that, from as early as 1906, she was attempting to record how the body as a whole perceived both form and the “fragmentary”, “strange rays of light” that compose “it”: “Here was St. Sophia; & here was I, with one brain 2 eyes, legs & arms in proportion, set down to appreciate it. Now what ever impression it made was certainly fragmentary & inconsequent” (Woolf 1990: 349). Moreover, this same diary of Constantinople also demonstrates the importance of “los[ing] your way in the unrecorded slums” for the town to become “a real town of flesh & blood” (353).

3In these examples, then, Woolf is not only using place and structure as metaphors for different systems of thought, such as she does, say, in Night and Day to describe Ralph’s building a pile of thought “as ramshackle and fantastic as a Chinese pagoda” (Woolf 1992: 237). She is also stressing the importance of the body to the navigation of established structures and how, by trespassing their given forms, it is brought into closer contact with them.

  • 1  All references to the printed edition of Kew Gardens are to the first 1919 edition, unless stated (...)

4Thinking back to Kew Gardens through these passages, one is struck by the similarity between them. For example, like Woolf in A Room, the young woman of her short story, Trissie, is lead down the garden’s “path” by a young man instead of going to the “Chinese pagoda” as she pleases. When taking the story’s revised typescript into consideration further parallels arise. Her diary’s description of St. Sophia as “the fruit of a great garden of flowers” (Woolf 1990: 348) suddenly takes on renewed resonance amongst details of a cathedral and mosaic in the typescript omitted from its publication in 1919.1 Even a cursory glance over the story’s well known opening sentence reveals differences in the typescript that align it with the description of her stroll through the Oxbridge quadrangles in a way lost in the 1919 edition:

  • 2  For the ease of the reader, I have silently corrected Woolf’s often extensive typographical errors (...)

From the oval shaped flower-bed there [rise] <rose> perhaps a hundred stalks spreading into heart shaped or tongue shaped leaves half way up, and unfurling at the tip red or blue or yellow petals marked with <raised> spots of colour rough to the finger: and from the red or blue or yellow gloom of the throat emerge[s]<d> a straight bar rough with gold [dudt] <dust> and [knobbed] <clubbed> at the end.2 (Woolf typescript: 1 [my italics])

Strolling through those colleges past those ancient halls the roughness of the present seemed smoothed away; the body seemed contained in a miraculous glass cabinet through which no sound could penetrate, and the mind, freed from any contact with facts (unless one trespassed on the turf again), was at liberty to settle down upon whatever meditation was in harmony with the moment. (Woolf 1928: 8 [my italics])

5Not only do the emendations show that Woolf originally wrote the story in the present tense, crucially the language of her typescript – “raised”, “knobbed”, and “rough to the finger” instead of “upon the surface” (Woolf 1919: 1) to describe the “spots of colour” – appeals to a haptic sense that makes explicit that such an experience of the present at Kew comes through the immediate medium of touch. Whilst there is something attractive to Woolf about the liberty afforded to the mind by the hermetic “smoothness” of the Oxbridge atmosphere, it is belied by her anxiety about the kind of dualistic thought that has made “smooth lawns” (Woolf 1945: 11) of what was once marsh and grassland and excluded her, as a woman, from these structures. Moreover, the roughness of the present at Kew highlights the importance of embodiment to the cognition of a place that, paradoxically, offers the subject smooth passage between its lawns, paths and oval-shaped flowerbeds.

6In her use of these metaphors of “rough” and “smooth” for space and her blurring, or trespassing, of the boundaries between them to demonstrate how each gives rise to the other, Woolf’s terms for spaces like Oxbridge and Kew might be fruitfully set beside Deleuze and Guattari’s “Smooth space and striated space – nomad space and sedentary space” (Deleuze 524). As we saw in the opening sentence of Kew Gardens, Woolf, too, invokes this “primordial duality between the smooth and the striated […] in order to subordinate the differences between ‘haptic’ and ‘optic,’ close vision and ‘distance vision’ to this distinction” (Deleuze 547). Deleuze and Guattari give “deserts, steppes, ice, and sea, local spaces of pure connection” as examples of this haptic space whose “orientations, landmarks, and linkages are in continuous variation”. It is one of the contentions of this paper that Kew Gardens operates in much the same way, “step by step” (Deleuze 544). By following Woolf off the beaten track and, as in A Room, into a manuscript (or, in this case, her own typescript), the present essay will show that, read alongside the published version, its variant readings help the reader better appreciate the place of the body in her attempt to write the human subject into touch with Kew’s “smooth” atmosphere.

7Critical approaches to Kew Gardens often overlook or ignore altogether the revised typescript, and in so doing underplay the interaction between the mind and the body and the physicality of Kew. Edward Bishop’s and John Oakland’s articles are silent on the typescript and both, in placing the story in the context of Woolf’s view of life as “a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end” in “Modern Fiction”, focus on the atmosphere of the garden in consciousness. Bishop argues that “Woolf does not document the physical scene, she immerses her reader in the atmosphere of the garden” (269) and Oakland, who briefly wonders if Woolf’s essay involves “too passive [a] conception of perception”, also accepts it as the framework in which to set the story (265). Alice Elizabeth Staveley opens her thesis with the same quotation from “Modern Fiction” but, whilst it represents the most in depth study of the story and Woolf’s “Monday or Tuesday Years”, she too considers that “the only major distinction between the surviving typescript and the published text [is] an excised section of the typescript that expands on the women’s dialogue rendering it more of a competition than an exchange” (Staveley 73 n62). Kathryn N. Benzel’s article is an exception. But for her the “revisions demonstrate an experimental narrative strategy – generalizing and abstracting” which “recognize and replicate the indeterminacy of life” for consciousness, which she, too, links to Woolf’s essay (194).

  • 3  See Rachel Bowlby, “Walking, Women, and Writing: Virginia Woolf as flâneuse” in New Feminist Disco (...)

8For both Benzel and Bishop, then, Kew Gardens is represented “not as a physical entity but as a collection, sometimes consistent, sometimes discordant, of characters’ thoughts” (Benzel 192). Oakland’s argument that the story “is more than atmosphere, insubstantial impressionism or an experiment” challenges these views but, in not considering the typescript, omits a level of detail in its suggestion that the story reveals “a harmonious, organic optimism” (Oakland 264). The present essay is sympathetic to Oakland’s reading and by showing the way in which the optic and haptic function together in the story will also look at the ways in which humans, animals, plants, and machines merge through the senses. Its main focus, however, will be on bringing to the reader’s attention the emendations Woolf made to the typescript in the creation of the 1919 edition, with a view to emphasising the importance of embodiment to an understanding of the story, and thereby demonstrate how current critical accounts in terms of “thought” or “atmosphere” might gain from readings that show Woolf writing perception and cognition through movement and touch. Whereas, Benzel’s account of the typescript focused largely on Woolf’s holograph emendations to the typescript itself, my own approach will consider both these and the silent corrections made to the typescript in the 1919 edition. Moreover, by reappraising the story in light of early diaries concerned with the creative potential of getting lost and travel away from popular thoroughfares, like that above on St. Sophia, rather than her essay on “Modern Fiction”, I hope to leave the reader with a renewed sense of Woolf the nomad rather than Woolf the urban flâneuse.3

9Woolf’s opinion of Hampton Court and Kew in 1903 was that, on the “maps” of most Londoners’, these locations might be “marked blank like certain districts of Africa” and that they were “essentially places which you visit between trains”. Her own experience, by contrast, was “crammed from no guide book or travelers tales. I have seen what I describe with my own eyes” (Woolf 1990: 172–3). The “intimacy with which she [wrote] about Kew in her diary” has lead Benzel to suggest that “she viewed the gardens as her own private space” (Benzel 194). However, even Woolf’s most intimate accounts of the places she explored and came to know privately in her earliest diaries show that, in her use of, say, cartographic imagery or detail from local guidebooks, her “refashioning” of “the geography of place” (Woolf 1992: 346–7) acknowledged, incorporated and was made in informed contradistinction to others’ opinions about and descriptions of it. Kew is one such location for her, “an intermediate space” (Staveley 33) between the private and the public, the local and the global; the gardens, as Katharine Hilberry feels, have “no points of the compass” (Woolf 1992: 350). In these early accounts of her nomadic travel, it is often those in which she demonstrates how mapped and unmapped, rough and smooth, space give rise to each other that result in her best traveler’s tales.

10One of the earliest examples of this is an adventure she had whilst on holiday in Bognor in February 1897. Virginia and Vanessa, with “no map, no watch, and no knowledge of the country”, set out on bicycles and find “the roads muddier and worse than [they have] ever ridden on”. They take to the footpath, which is “smoother” than the road and thus penetrate so far into the country that “footpaths cease to exist”. Their progress is cyclical in a double sense since they return to the “respectable High St.” of the town, but not before Woolf has gained a knowledge of the countryside she lacked at the outset: the six inches of “sticky clay” through which they comically plough is set (in an aside) against Jack Hills’ declaration that “the country [is] a sandy one” (Woolf 1990: 33). Here, Woolf shows that an accurate knowledge of a location is, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, contingent upon getting lost in it.

11The entry is also characteristic of those from the early months of 1897 in her use of deictics to write sensory experience through the hand and touch, and thereby couple the visual and the tactile, in writing the navigation of unknown space. In the February entry above, the deictic “– and behold – here was a school of little boys marching towards us!” itself stands out typographically on the page. She uses the same technique a month later to image some daffodils on another bike ride where she also “Lost the train at Welwyn” (Woolf 1990: 60). Again, in April, on another bike ride, having scaled a hill “on foot”, she writes: “behold a beautiful smooth descent of two miles and a ½ lay before us!” (Woolf 1990: 73). Just as in Kew Gardens and A Room above, here, too, “smooth” progress into uncharted space remains contingent on “the roughness of the present”. The importance of dismounting to explore on foot is again made clear two years later when Woolf was holidaying in Warboys. Despite the “roads” having their “beauties to the eye”, a bicyclist is “a mechanical animal”, so it is not until she dismounts that the scenery is “appreciated”. Here again, an appreciation of the “flat” scene from the “raised” road involves both the optic and haptic: to be “set down” within it, the present is there “to gaze at, nibble at & scratch at” (Woolf 1990: 143).

12These nomadic movements continue in 1905. Although Woolf thought the maps accompanying her lectures in March “dull” (Woolf 1990: 255), tramping about Cornwall in August, “the map of the land [became] solid in [her] brain” (285) and, a year later, she wrote how, “after leaping & circumnavigating, & brushing through reeds, & scrambling beneath barbed wire, it is pleasant to lie on the turf & try steering by windmills & towers to indicate on the map where you are precisely” (311). This is a far cry from the sheepish Woolf who thought it less “idiotic” to admit to losing “the road in broad daylight” than admitting to getting lost on the way to “nowhere” in 1903 (190) and continues to show the importance of cartography and infrastructure to her nomadic imagination.

  • 4  See “1730: Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible…” in A Thousand Plateaus, whi (...)

13Such is the case with her comments on “the scarcity of good roads in Cornwall” (290), which, by contrasting the “smoothly hammered” roads of the metropolitan “South” with the rough, “marks of rusticity” there, begin to use the same textural metaphors to criticize abstract systematization with an imaginative, felt space. Whereas the roads of the South “strike directly to their destination”, stepping aside from the Cornish “road” one must trust “innumerable little footpaths, as thin as though trodden by rabbits, which lead over hills & through fields in all directions”. Bodily sensitivity and spatial awareness go hand in hand. For example, “the Cornish substitute for the gate” (“granite blocks […] jut[ting] out at convenient intervals so as to form steps”) she likens to “the farmer wink[ing] one eye at the trespasser”. This system “keeps the land fluid, as it were so that the feet may trace new paths in it at their will” (290). But, as this and her earlier writings above show, such fluidity is not necessarily a sense best achieved by the human. By “becoming-animal”4and tracing multiple rabbit-like footpaths, Woolf deconstructs the “cut & dry” (290), “orthodox” (291), “natural” (366) system of delimiting space in a way that looks forward to A Room. Such imaginative immersions in animal and vegetable being alongside an emphasis on process and becoming, the haptic as well as the optic, can also be seen in her revisions to Kew Gardens.

14Kew Gardens and these early diaries share much common ground in their acknowledgement of the power of the voice to create and condition space. In 1903 Woolf recounted “being brought to a stop” in her explorations “by hearing male rustic voices, alarming to pedestrians of the womanly sex” (Woolf 1990: 190), and Kew Gardens also displays the tension between the desire for an immersion in the natural outside of language and the interruption of this by the voices of others. The story opens with a description of a flower’s “throat” and concludes with a chorus of human, animal, and mechanical voices “murmuring” together, offering an alternative to the human dialogues that punctuate the story. Yet even critics, such as Bishop and Oakland, who emphasise the way in which these human episodes structure the story, neglect to point out that each of them concludes with one directing the other through Kew differently from how they have been or wish to explore it. Crucially, these moments of direction are also interruptions of mergings of the human with the natural world.

15A comparison of the typescript with the 1919 edition shows that Woolf’s revisions of these moments of identification are much more evocative in the published version, and, by extension, their interruptions are more strongly felt. However, with the first couple, the human world is as other to the animal as the animal is to the human. Consequently, Woolf cut the part of the simile, given from the snail’s point of view, linking Simon and Eleanor’s movement with the butterflies’ through human deictics (“[flutter this way and that]” [Woolf typescript: 2]), to leave extant the more abstract “zig-zag flights”. Likewise, in the typescript, sexual difference is delineated more sharply: the final two sentences of what is the second paragraph in the 1919 edition form a short, separate paragraph in the typescript, emphasizing the otherness of the sexes in both body and thought. Woolf also omits her holograph emendation to the typescript of Eleanor’s second piece of dialogue that pluralizes the final word “reality” to “reality<s>” (Woolf typescript: 3) in 1919. But although the published version mitigates this solipsism by merging the typescript’s second and third paragraphs and omitting Eleanor’s self-assertive “I” (“For me, a kiss[.] <–> I imagine six little girls” (Woolf typescript: 3) becomes “For me, a kiss. Imagine six little girls” (Woolf 1919: 3), thus allowing her to invite Simon imaginatively inside her “reality”) the potential understanding these changes suggest between the human sexes doesn’t extend to that between themselves and the surrounding plant life. Woolf omits another holograph emendation made to the typescript in 1919 that shows how the memory of Eleanor’s kiss narrows the distinction between herself and other human and plant life: “the kiss of an old grey haired woman with a wart on her nose, the mother of all my kisses all my life [.] <– with the red water lilies – the past!>” (Woolf typescript: 3). The typescript demonstrates Eleanor’s closest identification with nature, but Woolf tempers this in 1919 to allow for the theme’s gradual development through the story.

16Whereas in the typescript the two men are introduced in the same paragraph as the snail and the high-stepping insect, in the published version Woolf, again, delineates the human and animal more sharply by making “This time they were both men” the beginning of a new paragraph (Woolf 1919: 4). As with Simon and Eleanor, she shows the merging of the two through a simile; this time that describing the elderly man’s gestures in the manner of “an impatient carriage horse who is tired of waiting outside a house” (Woolf typescript: 5) becomes in 1919 just “an impatient carriage horse tired of waiting outside a house” (Woolf 1919: 5). Although the published version has brought the identification closer by focusing on the horse-like-man rather than targeting them separately, in both versions it is immediately undercut because in the man these gestures are “irresolute and pointless”. Through these two early couples, Woolf shows that identification with an other is a matter of being rather than one that can be achieved through language. To underscore this, she contrasts superficial identifications of the human and the natural world through metaphors, which immediately impose likeness, with descriptions that show identification happening as a bodily process.

17It is through the younger man, William, that Woolf begins to affiliate the human and animal worlds in this way. However, this move is counterbalanced by an equivalent estrangement of human beings from each other. In the typescript, it is from the “sight of [Eleanors]<a woman’s> dress in the distance” that William must divert the old man’s attention by touching a flower with “the tip of his walking stick” (Woolf typescript: 6). In 1919, this sense of estrangement through her holograph emendation of “Eleanor” to “woman” is compounded by the silent alteration of “ships lost at sea” to “women drowned at sea” (Woolf 1919: 5). On the other hand, the deictic function of “tip” to create intersubjectivity between the two men not only shows Woolf’s move towards the haptic and the optic but, in so doing, her equivalence between this way of perceiving through multiple senses and that of the snail’s perception of the texture and sound of the leaf with “the tip of his horns” (Woolf 1919: 7). That Woolf intended this resonance is made clear when looking at the typescript, in which she wrote “point of his horn<s>” (Woolf typescript: 8) before silently emending it to “tip” in 1919.

18Unlike the introduction of the other human couples, there is no “transition” (Oakland 269) paragraph between the two men and the two elderly women because, from the entrance of the latter, they recognize (indeed are “frankly fascinated by”) the absolute otherness of the men in terms of sex, class, psychology, body, and space. Staveley’s footnote on the typescript (quoted above) suggests how, in the published version, Woolf softened the antagonism between the women themselves, but criticism of the scene has yet to look at the typescript in relation to how Woolf came to write the scene as a “moment of intoxication and identification, the immersion of the human in the natural” (Oakland 271). Benzel, who is the only one to consider the typescript, like Staveley, interprets the deletion of the competitive aspect from it as evidence that the women’s relationship becomes “vague, and the preceding lines of dialogue seem disconnected to any reality” (Benzel 197). Likewise, Bishop’s take on the published scene focuses on how the words of the women’s dialogue “cease to have more than vestigial denotative meaning” but instead become “palpable” and “non-cognitive” (Bishop 272). Looking at the typescript in the context that Oakland interprets the scene is interesting as its revision largely demonstrates how Woolf wanted to show this “identification” as an adaptive process happening as a function of the garden’s exploration, rather than imposing this blurring of material categories for the reader at the outset through self-conscious linguistic technique (like the metaphors discussed above). Woolf thereby particularizes each of these moments of identification as moments of being rather than generally relativizing the human and the natural worlds.

19From the first paragraph of the typescript, Woolf describes the spaces of the vegetable world in explicitly (human) architectural terms: the light illuminates “the vast <green> cathedra<l> spaces beneath the dome of the heart shaped and tongue shaped leaves”; in the paragraph with the high-stepping insect, the “flat blade like trees” wave “from the root to the highest pinnacle”; and in the cancelled passage of narrative concerning the two women their words make “a mosaic round them” (Woolf typescript: 1; 4; 7). But in 1919, the equivalence between the human and the natural is achieved with a lighter touch. Woolf omits “cathedral” and “mosaic” and emends the other description to “from root to tip” (Woolf 1919: 4). Again, as with the flowers unfurling at the “tip” into multicoloured petals in the first sentence, the men’s joint attention on the flower through the “tip” of William’s walking stick, and the “tip” of the snail’s horns sensing the leaf, Woolf’s preference for the word in the published version over variants of it in the typescript shows her using it to signify the meeting of an other at the limit of one’s being in a language that appeals to the body but which doesn’t exclusively favour the human perspective.

20Each of these moments also emphasizes the importance of movement to this process. By gradually introducing the way in which the natural world is identified with the human in this way, Woolf can show both how the human subjects adapt themselves to the terms of the garden but also how the animals come to terms with the presence of humanity in their environment. So, in the transitional paragraph after the ponderous woman has identified with the flowers, not only does Woolf emend the description of the snail’s horns from “point” to “tip”, the snail also begins to perceive the leaf’s “roof” in the (albeit crude) terms of human architecture. Moreover, the holograph emendations to his perceptions show that, when the snail is interrupted in his identification with the human, as the humans are in their identifications with nature, the process is ongoing but incomplete: he is only “<getting used>” to the terms in which he begins to perceive the leaf, rather than accepting the terms in which they are “[revealed to him]” (Woolf typescript: 8).

21Her emendations to the ponderous woman’s identification with the flowers also make this clear:

[She] <The ponderous woman> looked through [thil] the pattern o[j]<f> falling words at the flowers standing coool,firm and upright <in the earth> <,> with a curious expression, […] She came to a standstill opposite the oval shaped bed,and [v]eased even to pretend to listen to what other woman said. After a time <She uprooted herself: &> [she] suggested that they should find a seat and have their tea. (Woolf typescript: 7–8)

The ponderous woman looked through the pattern of falling words at the flowers standing cool, firm, and upright in the earth, with a curious expression. […] So the heavy woman came to a standstill opposite the oval shaped flower bed, and ceased even to pretend to listen to what the other woman was saying. She stood there, letting the words fall over her, swaying the top part of her body slowly backwards and forwards, looking at the flowers. Then she suggested that they should find a seat and have their tea. (Woolf 1919: 6–7)

22In the typescript, Woolf draws an arrow to her holograph insertion (“<She uprooted herself: &>”) from the word “bed” in the previous sentence. However, like the similes used to merge Simon and Eleanor with the butterflies and the elderly man with the carriage horse above, in 1919 she omits this insertion, again demonstrating her preference for process over single metaphorical statement to write the identification of the human with the natural. What the “other woman said” in typescript becomes what she is “saying”, and “letting”, “swaying”, and “looking”: all show ongoing bodily movement underlying thought and development. This is true generally of the difference between the typescript and the published version. For example, in the first paragraph Woolf alters “threads of fibre beneath the surface” (Woolf typescript: 1) to “branching threads of fibre” in 1919, the paragraph’s final sentence in typescript is also emended from “[come into]” to “<walk in>” Kew Gardens (Woolf typescript: 2), and the description of William’s look of stoical patience is changed from “slowly [deepened] <grew deeper>” (Woolf typescript: 6) to “grew slowly deeper and deeper” (Woolf 1919: 6).

23This reliance of the processes of language and thought on the body Woolf makes clearest in the relationship between the final couple, who, unlike the two men are introduced seamlessly in the same paragraph as the snail, suggesting how they will be put in touch with the garden in a way that the others are not. In answer to Trissie’s question “‘What’s ‘it’ – do you mean by it?’”, Bishop begins his article by insisting that “The reader knows what the young woman means” because it “occurs near the close of ‘Kew Gardens’”. “‘It’”, for Bishop, is “the essence of the natural and the human world of the garden”; not the “physical scene” but the “atmosphere of the garden” (Bishop 269). For Staveley, “‘it’ carries a weight of social signification that goes beyond questions of essence: ‘it’ encodes a critique of the economies of sexual exchange that underpin prevailing assumptions about conventional patterns of courtship, romance, and marriage” (Staveley 64). But, to continue placing the story in the context of Woolf’s diaries, perhaps the reader gets a better sense of what she means by “‘it’” from her diary entry on the 27th February 1926:

I have some restless searcher in me. Why is there not a discovery in life? Something one can lay hands on & say ‘This is it?’ My depression is a harassed feeling – I’m looking; but that’s not it – that’s not it. What is it? And shall I die before I find it? Then (as I was walking through Russell Sqre last night) I see the mountains in the sky: the great clouds; & the moon which is risen over Persia I have a great & astonishing sense of something there, which is ‘it’ – It is not exactly beauty that I mean. It is that the thing is in itself enough: satisfactory; achieved. A sense of my own strangeness, walking on the earth is there too: of the infinite oddity of the human position; trotting along Russell Sqre with the moon up there, & those mountain clouds. Who am I, what am I, & so on: these questions are always floating about in me; & then I bump against some exact fact – a letter, a person, & come to them again with a great sense of freshness. And so it goes on. But, on this showing which is true, I think, I do fairly frequently come upon this ‘it’; & then feel quite at rest. (Woolf 1980: 62–3)

24Although Woolf, here, perhaps gets no closer than Trissie to defining what “‘it’” is, in both the diary and the short story the physical process (“(as I was walking through Russell Sqre last night)”) and physicality of process (“something one can lay hands on”; “bump against”) along the way to approaching the construction of “‘it’” are strongly felt.

25Again, in this context, the revisions to the typescript are telling in that they emphasise how thought and bodily action go hand in hand, and, at the same time, how, in revising the characterization of both humans and animals to this end, Woolf blurs the distinction between the two. So, just as Woolf silently changes the typescript where the young couple press “the end of her parasol deep down into the soft earth” from “who knows (so they thought) what precipices aren’t concealed in them, or what slopes of glowing ice don’t shine in the sun of the further side[.]<?>” (Woolf typescript: 9) to read “who knows (so they thought as they pressed the parasol into the earth) what precipices aren’t concealed in them, or what slopes of ice don’t shine in the sun on the other side? Who knows? Who has ever seen this before?” (Woolf 1919: 8), her holograph emendation to the typescript (retained in 1919) regarding the high-stepping insect waiting “with its antennae trembling <as if in deliberation>” (4), makes clear this reciprocity between thought and action in both humans and animals alike. Whereas in Night and Day, the narrator supplies a gloss to what Katherine means by “this” as she walks around Kew (Woolf 1999: 346), in Kew Gardens it is not the precise meaning of deictics such as “this” and “it” that is important. Rather, like Woolf’s experiments with them in the diaries above, her emendations to the typescript show that the body and its movement through space create these moments of intersubjectivity and this language for it, making “it” very much contingent on the “physical scene” and the particular situation of the subject within it.

26In the 1927 edition of the story, Woolf added to this haptic sense of space by replacing “slopes of ice” with “ridges of ice” (16). Indeed, her emendations of the typescript demonstrate a turn towards the haptic experience of Kew in 1919: the description of the human old man on seeing the woman’s dress changes from “He took off his hat and began to hurry towards her saying” (Woolf typescript: 6) to “He took off his hat, placed his hand upon his heart and hurried towards her muttering and gesticulating feverishly” (Woolf 1919: 5); the metaphor for the youthfulness of the final couple metamorphoses from one about “the smooth pink case of the flower” (Woolf typescript: 8) to “the smooth pink folds of the flower” (7); even the simile for the mechanical gears of the motor omnibuses incorporates touch, turning “one within another” (10) in 1919, whereas they merely turn ceaselessly in typescript. Woolf’s hand in the production of the typescript may also have actively contributed to her writing in a heightened haptic sense: the darker ink on page ten – which includes “the young man fingering the coin in his pocket”, “pulling the parasol out of the earth”, and drawing Trissie on – shows that she must have changed her typewriter’s ribbon before typing it, and the remainder of the story.

27But whilst the (human) body is manifestly placed at the centre of perceptual experience in the garden, many of Woolf’s revisions of the typescript in 1919 show how human categories of thought are not privileged in the same way. Indeed, the “atmosphere” she achieves in the story is not, as critics like Bishop and Benzel suggest, at the expense of the physical but rather by emending human divisions of space and time to allow causality to be felt not thought. The emendations to the passage of light through the opening paragraph provide the best example of this:

  • 5  My ellipsis to indicate my abbreviation of this passage of the typescript.

the red and blue and yellow lights pass<ed/> one over the other staining some inch of the <flower> bed <beneath> for a second with a spot of the most intricate colour. It [may] [strike] <lighted> upon <either> the smooth grey back of a pebble, or the shell of a snail with its brown circular veins, or, falling into the centre of a rain drop, held in a crevice of the earth, […]5Instead of that [however] the drop [is] <was> left in a second silver grey once more: and the light now settle[s]<d> upon the flesh of a leaf, revealing the threads of fibre beneath the surface; and in another second [it] passe[s]<d> on (Woolf typescript: 1)

the red blue and yellow lights passed one over the other, staining an inch of the brown beneath with a spot of the most intricate colour. The light fell either upon the smooth grey back of a pebble, or the shell of a snail with its brown circular veins, or, falling into a raindrop, […] Instead the drop was left in a second silver grey once more, and the light now settled upon the flesh of a leaf, revealing the branching thread of fibre beneath the surface, and again it moved on (Woolf 1919: 1)

28In 1919, the passage of time is not measured by the “second”. Rather, the perception of the movement of light is the very way in which the passage of time is felt. Instead, “again” and “then” (for example in the emendation from “After a time” to “then” in the final sentence of the scene with the two women above) are words that characterize the causal relation of events for both humans and animals alike, rather than time’s conception in minutes and seconds. Indeed, the “time” that one should have tea according to convention rather than desire is the premise upon which the young man regulates Trissie’s exploration of the garden.

29It is fitting that, having given a reading of Kew Gardens in light of Woolf’s early writing about nomadic travel and the significance of the body feeling its way into unmapped space, my closing observations should concern a small but important change to the typescript that demonstrates Woolf’s preference for going off the beaten track at Kew. In her article, Benzel notes that, rather than closing with the snail going on “quietly towards his goal” (Woolf typescript: 12), in the published story light simply flashes into the air. However, as this article has shown, Woolf’s emendations to the animal world double those made to the human – the high-stepping insect trembles in deliberation just as the ponderous woman sways in time with the flowers; the tips of walking sticks press themselves upon the world like the tips of the snail’s horns – and this change should be read alongside another of Woolf’s amendments on the same page. Whereas in the typescript, the men, women and children who see “the breadth of yellow that lay upon the grass path” leave it for the shade of the trees, in 1919 they only see “the breadth of yellow that lay upon the grass” (9). Here, like Woolf in A Room, they are not following a path anyway when they lose themselves in the trackless forest. For the men, women and children, then, as much as for the snail, the smooth space of the garden, unlike the infrastructure of the city that makes itself heard outside, is one that must be felt into and that unfolds itself through this process of exploration.

30For Deleuze and Guattari, “Taking a walk is a haecceity”. “Haecceity, fog, glare. A haecceity has neither beginning nor end, origin nor destination; it is always in the middle” (290). As we have seen, so, too, is a walk in Kew Gardens. Each being we meet in the garden is already on the way to somewhere else; their identifications with one another are always kinetic. This essay has shown that the differences between the typescript and the published story demonstrate how Woolf revised the story to these ends. Whilst it is fair to say that certain revisions to the typescript represent a move towards “generalization and abstraction” (Benzel 194) Woolf’s “mist” derives “from extreme precision, not vagueness” (Bishop 274), and I would argue that her emendations generally appeal to a haptic sense of space, rooting perception, thought and action in the bodies of humans and animals alike. Through the body and its movement, the deictic language for what the character’s perceive (for example, Trissie’s “turning her head this way and that way […] wishing to go down there and then down there”) makes sense; “‘it’” describes and interrogates the ongoing process of sensing, of making sense, out of one’s body as much as it seeks to fix upon a definition. In the midst of things at Kew, perception “no longer resides in the relation between a subject and an object, but rather in the movement serving as the limit of that relation” (Deleuze 311). The nomadic “streaming, spiralling, zigzagging, snaking, feverish line of variation” (Deleuze 550) taken by the couples and animals through Kew Gardens blurs them together whilst they move in this way. Such “zig-zag flights” are taken by Simon and Eleanor and the butterflies. In another diary entry on her exploration of Cornwall in the summer of 1905, Woolf wrote: “We make expeditions, it seems to me, more for the sake of the going & coming […] than because there is any special sight of beauty to be found in the spot where we pitch our resting place” (Woolf 1990: 294). By unearthing some of the variant lines lost in the transition between the typescript and the published version of the story, one can see how Woolf tried to leave her reader with a similar sense of Kew, and the ebb and flow of a walk through it in July.


Benzel, Kathryn N. “Woolf’s Early Experimentation with Consciousness: ‘Kew Gardens,’ Typescript to Publication, 1917–1919” in Virginia Woolf: Turning the Centuries. Selected Papers from the Ninth Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf. Ed. Ann Ardis and Bonnie Kime Scott. New York: Pace UP, 2000. 192–9.

Bishop, Edward. “Pursuing ‘It’ Through ‘Kew Gardens’” in Studies in Short Fiction 19 (1982): 269–75.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus (1980). Trans. Brian Massumi. London: Continuum, 2004.

Oakland, John. “Virginia Woolf’s Kew Gardens” in English Studies 3 (1987): 264–73.

Staveley, Alice Elizabeth. “Reconfiguring ‘Kew Gardens’: Virginia Woolf’s Monday or Tuesday Years”. DPhil thesis. U of Oxford, 2000.

Woolf, Virginia. “Kew Gardens”. Typescript. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. 1–12.

---. Kew Gardens. London: Hogarth, 1919.

---. Night and Day (1919). Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1999.

---. Kew Gardens. London: Hogarth, 1927.

---. A Room of One’s Own (1928). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1945.

---. A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals 1897–1909. Ed. Mitchell A. Leaska. London: Hogarth, 1990.

---. The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volume III 1925–1930. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNellie. London: Hogarth, 1980.


1  All references to the printed edition of Kew Gardens are to the first 1919 edition, unless stated otherwise. However, since no pagination was given to either this or the 1927 edition, the page numbering I have given for these editions takes page 1 to be that on which the text of the story begins.

2  For the ease of the reader, I have silently corrected Woolf’s often extensive typographical errors in quotation from the typescript. Words in [square brackets] indicate holograph deletions to the typescript. Words in <triangular brackets> indicate holograph insertions to the typescript.

3  See Rachel Bowlby, “Walking, Women, and Writing: Virginia Woolf as flâneuse” in New Feminist Discourses: Critical Essays on Theories and Texts, ed. Isobel Armstrong (London: Routledge, 1992).

4  See “1730: Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible…” in A Thousand Plateaus, which makes special reference to Woolf.

5  My ellipsis to indicate my abbreviation of this passage of the typescript.

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Oliver Taylor, « “What’s ‘it’ – What do you mean by ‘it’?”: Lost Readings and getting lost in “Kew Gardens” », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 50 | Spring 2008, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2011, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL :


Oliver Taylor

U.K.Doctoral Fellow at Durham University where he is in the final stages of completing a Ph.D. on “Body Language in D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf”. He has published articles on “Love Among the Haystacks” and “The Prussian Officer” in The Companion to the British Short Story (Facts-on-File: 2006) and a chapter on “D. H. Lawrence’s and Virginia Woolf’s Hands” in The Hand of the Interpreter: Essays on Meaning After Theory (Peter Lang: 2008).

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